Robert McCloskey – Portrait Of An Artist

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This post is about the American illustrator and children’s book author Robert McCloskey, whose all-American illustrations had a wholesome, whimsical quality that is timeless and deserves to be remembered.



McCloskey was born in September, 1914, and passed away in June of 2003, having left behind a rich legacy of art and  books.

 
 
 
 
 
 



McCloskey illustrated children’s books, and published eight of his own (a complete bibliography is HERE). Some of the books for which he is best known include:

McCloskey also illustrated children’s books written by others, such as:
Unfortunately, there is not a collected treasury of McCloseky’s illustrations from his books, which is a shame, because his work has a timeless, whimsical, all-American theme.
 
There is a collection of his stories with accompanying artwork, called Make Way For McCloskey, but judging from the comments on Amazon, the illustrations have been too reduced in size to fully appreciate. 



McClosey’s daughter Jane McCloskey published a book called Robert McCloskey: A Private Life in Words and Pictures containing illustrations and color works McCloskey created of his family life. You can check it out HERE.

 








What’s needed is a grand collection of McCloskey’s work that gives his fantastic illustrations the audience and presentation they deserve, such as this fantastic piece from the book Centerburg Tales (click on it for a larger view):
 
 

 



The Art Of the Hands



McCloskey’s work is simple yet precise; the bodies are all expertly rendered, and he is very good at drawing hands, something I still struggle with, and will be working to improve by studying how artists like McCloskey draw them. Take a look at these examples:

 

 
 
Copying hands drawn by others is a very good way to practice your technique, and practice is the only way you are going to get better at drawing hands. 
 
Notice how each finger is its own cylindrical shape, and each knuckle is it’s own cylindrical shape as well. 
 
When drawing fingers, think of each finger as it’s own shape, and can bend only one way as it gestures or grips an object.
 
These diagrams from Andrew Loomis’s excellent book Drawing The Head And Hands might help convey this point (click for larger view):

 

 

 
 
 
 
If you think of each knuckle as its own shape, on a hinge, as depicted above, then you might find the process easier. 
 
Note also that the underside of each knuckle has a slight curve to it, and that as fingers are grouped together, the top fingers conceal part of the fingers beneath.
 
 







 





Below is a great video that illustrates a good technique for drawing hands, put up on YouTube by Mark Crilley:



 
 





Another factor that makes McClosey’s illustrations so engaging is his skill at rendering expressions. He just makes it look so easy, and these expressions really bring the characters to life, making them “real”. You really get a sense of what each character is thinking through these expressions. Observe…


 

 

Singing with passion…

Enthusiastically explaining…





Sly and mischievous, with eyes half closed…










Scolding and disapproving…
…dramatic and well rehearsed speech…. 
one doubtful, one astonished…

 



…thoughtful consideration, mulling it over…

…whistling innocently…

 

 

 

… concentration and determination…




The best way to capture facial expressions is to observe them yourself, and notice what the face does when a person is doing or saying certain things. The muscles in the face are in perpetual motion, and are constantly changing, usually without our noticing it, but these changes are noticed by others.
 
In fact, these facial cues are one of the key signals that people use when interacting with each other. 

 

 

Even without a face McCloskey can convey emotion. Here, from the wonderful story book The Man Who Lost His Head, the main charactor is obviously pondering his dilemma over his lost appendange.

 

































Here’s a handy chart of facial expressions created by DeviantArt member majnouna. To see the super-sized view, right-click on the image and choose “open in new tab”, then click on the magnifying glass to expand it.
 
 
 
 
 
McCloskey uses charcoal to shade his illustrations; his shading is done sparingly, just enough to give his illustrations the right depth and texture. Shading, remember, is the technique that indicates where the light is coming from, and from what kind of surfaces the light is reflecting (or not reflecting).
 
In this piece, note that the man’s coat is lightly shaded to give it a coarse texture, using crosshatching. There is a reflective strip on his boots, indicating the leather that is reflecting the light. There is also shade under each bar stool, and under the counter.
 
Also note the big coffee urns in the background; there is shading on the backs of them, as the urns curve away from the light.
 
Below is another great example of shading; the light, obviously, is emanating from the jukebox.

 

 

Movies Based on McCloskey’s Books
Unsurprisingly, some of McCloskey’s books were adapted for television and/or the movies. Here they are, with links to enable you to watch them:
  • Lentil – This production from 1963 looks home made using a consumer film camera, probably 8 or 16 millimeter. While low production, it is worth a look.
  • The Doughnuts – Part one (parts two and three are available as well) of a 1963 production. A product of its time, there is 50’s-era music in the background, and the lunchroom set looks hastily built. The acting is hammy, and has an off-Broadway theater production quality.
  • The Case of The Cosmic Comic – A 1976 production based on a chapter in the book Homer Price, where Homer and his friends meet the comic book superhero  Super Duper at the local movie theater. There’s a school educational-film quality to it, with dated background music

 

Finally, here are some scans of McCloskey’s illustrations. I hope someday a fitting treasury of his work is published. It is long overdue.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Links:

 

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